Owen Sheers, already picked out as poetry's bright hope by poet laureate Andrew Motion, reveals with The Dust Diaries that he is also a dab hand at biography, travel writing and fiction--all in one gripping book. A stray comment from his grandmother one summer afternoon whets his interest in her uncle--a poet called Arthur Shearly Cripps--and the more Sheers finds out, the more Cripps and his life intrigues him. Gradually, a fragmentary portrait emerges of this distant relative who left England for Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) where he lived as a missionary until his death.
Given the assumption of guilt against missionaries of the era, readers may well be surprised to find themselves warming to Cripps. He was clearly a thorn in the side of both the colonial administration and the Anglican church, constantly siding with the Africans. Yet Sheers does avoid the temptation of making him a saint. Why did this successful man leave England? The untold dust diaries of experience are what Sheers imagines as he tries to come closer to his relative. The book successfully shuffles fictionalised episodes from Cripps's life, including wartime adventure, with Sheers's visits to Zimbabwe. Sheers writes lyrically and vividly of each experience. We come to know his remarkable ancestor, the Shona people he lived with and the troubles and beauty of their land. Fittingly, it is at the all-night, all-singing, all-dancing Shearly Cripps Festival--held at Cripps's grave--that Sheers finally learns what his ancestor means to him, in a very Shona way.